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The Shifting and Crazy State of M&A – Have You Missed It?

The Shifting and Crazy State of M&A – Have You Missed It?

Every summer, the Alliance of Mergers & Acquisitions Advisors gathers over 300 professionals in Chicago to discuss the state of the market, opportunities to work together, and how to create value for businesses.

The mix of professionals is broad. It includes investment bankers, financing partners, private equity funds, accountants, lawyers, business valuators, financial planners, marketers and business improvement, HR, and family business consultants.

Pretty much every type of professional that serves a business owner from the time their company is formed to the time they exit attends. The conference itself is a blend of speed dating and education. There’s as much energy in the presentation rooms as there is in the hall where people connect and collaborate.

Throughout the speed dating, everyone is curious about what the other guy is seeing in the market. How much activity are you seeing? Are your deals getting the needed financing? What multiples are you up against? Where are you having success? Where is it hitting the fan?

The tone of this year’s conversations was decidedly different from even twelve months ago. Last summer, everyone knew that we were in one of the longest bull-runs ever and the market was not showing many signs of cooling. Buyers were hungry hunters looking for quality companies and were willing to pay for them.

These conversations were different. Sure, buyers – whether a corporation looking to make a strategic acquisition or a private equity fund/financial buyer looking to invest – still seek quality companies and, when they find one, are willing to jump.

Healthcare, high tech, and online/SaaS companies are in high demand. Companies for sale that aren’t attractive enough or meet buyers’ investment criteria are being turned away just as they were before. So, what’s changed?

Two dynamics are appearing:

  • Buyers are being cautious and conservative, worried that the run is slowing. Many buyers are pulling their chips back. They still have the chips. They just aren’t as eager to jump as they were before.
  • Multiples for attractive platform companies are “insane,” as more than one buyer put it. Some companies are going for multiples as high as 12 or 13, which is extraordinarily high for even golden opportunities.

These dynamics may appear to be at odds with each other, but they aren’t. There are several factors driving this.

[Related: Innovation Defined: 3 Keys to Future Proofing Your Business]

The haunting of 2008.

For many experienced buyers of companies, the current economic environment is beginning to feel like 2007 and 2008 before the economy shifted. Multiples were also high then. Funds were being pressured by their investors to deploy the capital and make investments into portfolio companies. Investors bought at a market high, often using significant amounts of debt to fund it.

Then the wheels fell off. Economic growth opportunities stalled. Portfolio companies sputtered and struggled to survive. Access to financing for the substantial growth initiatives, such as implementation of a robust ERP system or acquisition of an add-on, shut down. The ability to get a return on the investment, let alone the original targeted return and timetable, was seriously compromised. Some investments were upside down on their debt.

Fast forward to today. Eleven years have flown by and investors and their portfolio companies have recovered. But the memory of 2008 is still fresh in the minds of many seasoned buyers. They have no desire to relive the pain of having paid good money at the market top to then watch it free fall. Buyers are decidedly more cautious about pulling the trigger on a deal, particularly for the platform companies.

[Related: 5 Things to Remember in a Nervous Stock Market]

The pressure to deploy.

That said, private equity and other financial investors exist to deploy capital into businesses that show promise for growth in revenue, profitability, and return on investment.

The private and institutional investors that invest in the private equity, family office, or other funds expect a return on their money, which places the financial buyers under pressure to buy companies.

Competition for the good companies.

The supply of good companies for sale is not what you might think given the current demographics. Many businesses are up for sale. However, few meet the investment criteria for buyers.

The rule of thumb is that for every 100 deals that come across the financial buyers’ desks, only one to two percent make it to the point of serious discussion. The criteria include, among other things, a certain level of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, a functioning management team, strong customer diversity, and an up-side potential for the buyer to take the company to its next level. That can be the proverbial “needle in the haystack” given all the companies that come across their desk.

When “the one” comes along, the need to act is accelerated. The smart seller entertains multiple buyers through a controlled auction, which forces the interested buyers to sharpen their pencils and drive the multiples up. Depending on the pressure to deploy capital, bids go higher than they normally would, such as is occurring now.

The takeaway from all this is that while healthcare, high tech, and anything with a SaaS in it are still in a hot sellers’ market, the market for bread-and-butter companies has shifted to a buyers’ market. The window of opportunity to take advantage of the bull-run appears to be slowly closing.

Future sellers will face increased competition to be the chosen one at the dance and to achieve their desired value. The need to improve the transferability of a company so it is always ready to sell is only going to get bigger.

[Related: Four Critical Tips for Building a Memorable Brand]


Martha Sullivan's career has wound many curves, from a budding Information Systems graduate, to consulting in a CPA firm, to controller and CFO positions, and then back to consulting. She has always been committed to helping others accomplish their goals.

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